Earlier this month, in a Manhattan hotel conference room, a student journalist admitted being nervous about an upcoming business reporting internship.
“I’m going to be blunt,” she said. “I’m 20. I don’t know about the Stock Exchange. I’ve never even done my own taxes.”
She asked the featured speakers seated at the front of the room — Business Insider Executive Editor Joe Weisenthal and Deputy Editor Nicholas Carlson — what resources she should check out to learn about the financial world.
Weisenthal responded immediately with a smile: “Start reading Business Insider.”
A bit more than four years after its launch (and six years after the launch of its smaller predecessor Silicon Alley Insider), BI has become one of the boldest business news sites in the world. Its coverage base has expanded from tech and Wall Street to areas such as politics, retail, advertising, sports, science, and military and defense. It boasts roughly 100 staffers and 25 million monthly unique visitors (though Compete.com pegs uniques at 3.8 million last October). Amid jabs at its editorial and aggregation practices, it is regularly held up as a digital news success story — with hopes its profits will match its web hits in the years to come.
>>>> FLASHBACK: Henry Blodget, Silicon Alley Look for Resurgence (2007 article) <<<<
As 24/7 Wall St. shared last summer, “Operators of traditional sites are left to wonder if they have to copy some of BI’s editorial tactics and give up decades-old values or be trampled by BI as it scrambles to increase its audience and expand into new operations … BI has given readers what few sites do — almost no reason to go elsewhere to get information.”
During the recent Spring National College Media Convention staged by the College Media Association (CMA), Weisenthal and Carlson, two of BI’s chief operators, shared advice with student attendees about web writing, audience building, social media mechanics, and a few old-school journalism fundamentals.
I moderated the pair’s session. Its title: “How to Succeed at Business Insider — and Digital Journalism — By Really Trying.”
Below is a top 10 sampling of their tips and perspectives.
1. A Whole Suite of Stories
The most cogent, repeated point made by both editors throughout the session: In the digital sphere, standalone articles should be treated as an increasingly rare species. Instead, focus on information streams, ever-flowing.
“We don’t really think of things we put up as ‘an article,’” said Carlson. “It’s a bit of information conveyed to people. One of my old colleagues used to say that the last sentence of your last post is the first sentence of your next post. Because by the time you reach the end you sort of come to a cliff, ‘Oh I have another thought on this and I’m just going to put it in the next post.’ In a way, it does sort of become a narrative. For sure, I think [that’s] the attraction of reading something at Business Insider … It’s a live medium where the narrative is always coming out with the next thing.”
Weisenthal is often reminded how differently digital outlets such as BI work when it comes time to submit content for awards.
“They have the journalism competitions where they invite people to apply and they always say, ‘Submit your top three posts for consideration that you’re most proud of’ or something like that,” he said. “And I can never come up with the stuff. I don’t think I have a single great post last year that I’m really proud of. Everything I write is part of this bigger stream.”
He pointed to his real-time blanket coverage of the monthly U.S. jobs report as an example. “If you follow me on Jobs Day, within like 20 minutes of the report coming out, I have a summary posted,” he said. “Then I have another post singling out one detail I thought was interesting. I have another post saying what it might mean for interest rates and fed policy. I have another post talking about the political dimensions and so forth. I’m proud of the fact that it’s this whole suite of stories.”
2. Get in People’s Faces
The mobile and online arenas perpetuate a browse-and-pick routine in which readers stumble across content through a variety of sites, apps, and social media. Simply slapping stories onto a homepage and expecting exposure is almost sickeningly out of touch. Every single story or info stream must be marketed individually and repeatedly, through their headlines and the work of writers and editors to promote them.
“There’s always this ongoing competition,” Weisenthal said. “You have to sell every piece. And we really want to be read. We really want to stand out. We really want every story that we write to get in people’s face. I just think that’s, in general, a really good attitude to have. You want to be the one who controls the conversation.”
3. How You Should Tell Your Readers You’re Excited
In the ongoing digital content conversation and competition, the most important salesmen are headlines. To shape quality headers, according to Weisenthal and Carlson, start by dropping the journalese.
As Weisenthal shared, “A phenomenon that we see a lot is someone will be like ‘Check out this crazy slam dunk of some guy doing a 360’ or ‘Check out this crazy chart of the price of gold skyrocketing.’ And that’s a great thing. You tell your friend that, and then they’ll put it on the site and [the headline] will be like ‘Gold rises 25 percent in two weeks,’ which is not nearly as exciting. It’s like, ‘Why didn’t you sell it like you just told me on IM?’ How you tell your friend something you’re excited about, that’s how you should tell your readers you’re excited about it.”
So simply put, what should go into a digital news headline? Carlson advised keeping the focus on “the most exciting part of the story, why the story matters, the stakes, the gist, and why anybody is talking about it.”
A sampling of headlines topping recent posts by Carlson and Weisenthal: “The Best Move For Cyprus Might Be To Hold A Gun To Its Own Head”; “Everyone Betting Against The Yen Is Having A Bad Day”; “Here’s Shaq Making Chris Christie Look Incredibly Tiny”; “A Startup Rejected Facebook’s Acquisition Bid, And Now Facebook Is Choking It To Death”; “We Talked To A Mailbox Investor Shortly After It Sold, And He Said: ‘Holy S—-! These Guys Actually Did It!’”; “Someone Paid $10,000 To Say The Line ‘Your Check, Sir’ In The Veronica Mars Movie”; “For The First Time In Ages, Apple’s Stock Is Starting To Perform Well”; and “In One Chart You’ll See Why Nothing’s Getting Fixed In Europe.”
4. Not All That Different from Instant Messenger
Along with selling the excitement, the BI editors stressed the importance of making your suite of stories conversational — and not a word longer than they have to be.
As Carlson confirmed about BI’s editorial style, “What we do is not all that different from Instant Messenger. Except instead of talking to one person you’re talking to everyone who comes to BusinessInsider.com. It’s just very conversational. You write it with the same clarity that you write an IM. I’m just trying to talk to you. That’s how I’m going to write it. The ideas are not going to be super-simple ideas, but the language is not laborious to get through. Short just happens to be a lot easier to digest than long.”
5. A Really Good Ambition to Have
Carlson said one of the core traits of most successful BI staffers is simple, unswayed ambition. As he explained, “They don’t wait for someone to tell them to start having ambitious ideas. They kind of just have them and then pursue them … It’s a competitive spirit of wanting to win and wanting to have your career do really well and actually going after it — instead of being passive about it and seeing what great assignment someone’s going to give you.”
Weisenthal doubled down on those words of wisdom, stressing, “That sort of hunger to know something and to establish yourself as someone who makes people say, ‘Yes, they’re awesome on this subject’ is a really good ambition to have.”
6. The Right People on the Right Pages
Carlson said the backbone to achieving that level of awesomeness is an outright “obsession about your beat.”
As Weisenthal agreed, “There’s no substitute for getting to know a subject. You can always learn to write. But if you’re interested in learning to write about, say, Wall Street and banks, make sure you really get to know them deep. You see a lot of young writers who want to tackle some subject, but frequently their biggest limitation is their base of knowledge.”
It is this knowledge base that most impresses Weisenthal when he initially evaluates students — much more than what they have to say.
In this respect, as he advised, “Read the right people on the right pages. You don’t need to necessarily have anything real smart to say. When you’re young, no one really cares what you have to say, your opinion. But establishing that you know what’s going on and you’re on the ball is incredibly powerful. When I see someone on the Internet who I can tell is paying attention to the right stories and they’re following the right people and they seem to understand the rhythm of the Internet and the rhythm of news, that’s way more important to me than them saying something really insightful.”
7. A Marathon and a Sprint
Mastering both the Internet and news rhythms does require lots of work for long stretches. “I do think in general it’s about showing up and cranking on something really hard,” said Weisenthal. “The people who I work with who do that really just want to own a story and just be all over it, [and] they do well. There’s something to be said for just putting in the time.”
Weisenthal is well-known for his almost nonstop work routine, literally inspiring a New York Times Magazine story headlined “Joe Weisenthal vs. the 24-Hour News Cycle.”
To illustrate Weisenthal’s work ethic and perspective, Carlson shared a brief tale from the newsroom involving Business Insider CEO and editor-in-chief Henry Blodget.
As he recalled, at a staff meeting awhile back, “Henry, our boss, said to the whole newsroom, ‘Look, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.’ And Joe goes, ‘Well, world-class marathoners are running at a pace that none of us could sprint at.’”
Both stressed though that such a frantic pace is not for everyone. “Unless it just comes naturally to you, you shouldn’t work as many hours as [Weisenthal] does,” Carlson said, “because you’ll just fall over and die.”
In Weisenthal’s words, “People ask me how I avoid burnout and stuff like that. I actually don’t. I usually have this cycle where I’ll be really good and then one day every month I’ll be like ‘Oh my God, I hate my life, I want to die.’ And then I just veg out on the couch all day and watch TV. And then I’m better.”
8. Test Story Ideas on Twitter
During his portion of the talk, Weisenthal confirmed what his 40,000 Twitter followers already know: While working hard at all hours, he tweets a lot.
Along with sharing news and showing some personality, he said, “a big part of Twitter for me is just trying out ideas. Something will come to me, maybe just the germ of a story that I haven’t written yet, and I’ll tweet some thought and see what kind of reaction I get. So I use it very much as a sounding board … You know, ‘That seemed to strike a nerve, so maybe I’ll expand on that.’”
9. Business Journalism is the Best
One sentiment that struck a nerve for Weisenthal and Carlson centered on the power and benefits of business journalism. Weisenthal in particular didn’t mince words about what he perceives as its predominance. “My opinion is that business journalism is the best,” he said. “Think about it this way. Everyone can write about politics. It’s not that hard … But those people who specialize in writing about politics would never have something smart to say about the jobs report. If you’re thinking about an area, I highly recommend business because it is superior to every other one.”
As Carlson quickly added, “And you get paid well.”
10. Be That Other Guy
Toward the close of the session, Carlson shared an anecdote that harkened back to Journalism 101. “So there’s a guy who’s sort of an upcoming reporter in the D.C. scene and works for the Washington Post or something like that,” he said. “He gets transferred to Detroit to cover the automobile industry. He thinks he’s a very smart guy, so he really studies up on and learns everything he thinks there is to know on the Detroit auto industry. So he goes up and meets a lot of the auto executives. Finally, at the end of a meeting with one of the executives, the executive talking to the reporter says, ‘You are really smart. You know everything. You are really impressive. The last reporter who was in here, I had to tell him everything.’ The joke being —”
“You want to be that other guy,” Weisenthal interjected amiably.
Carlson nodded, agreeing simply, “You want to be told everything.”
Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His textbook Journalism of Ideas: Brainstorming, Developing, and Selling Stories in the Digital Age is due out in April by Routledge.